Fri Sep 25, 2015
As I alluded to in my last post, the very definition of a “flagship” has perceptively shifted this past year.
Firstly, mid-range devices with high-end specs and razor-thin profit margins have exploded out of China.
Secondly, the definition of a flagship has skewed heavily toward big phones (formerly known as phablets, but now the norm). Bigger phones tend to get better battery life and are able to fit in better camera components, such as Optical Image Stabilization (OIS). But, I most certainly do not want a big phone. For me, the sweet spot is in the 4.5 to 5-inch screen size range. For this reason, I’m excluding phones like the Note 5 and iPhone 6S Plus from my overview of the year’s best.
However, when all is said and done, a flagship choice always comes down to that most ancient and hotly disputed divide - Android or iPhone?
Apple’s latest entry in the flagship wars, the iPhone 6S, comes as no surprise. Dependably meticulous manufacturing. A two-year design cycle. And so many leaks before the official announcement that the only real surprise this year was a unique take on the “selfie flash” where the whole front screen lights up. Let’s not forget the predictably glowing reviews as well. For the upper middle-class of the developed world, the iPhone is the only choice there is. It is, for better or worse, America’s phone.
Despite Apple not playing the spec game, let’s take a look anyway for the sake of consistency:
Operating system: iOS 9
Display: 4.7-inch 1334 x 750 pixel IPS LCD display, 326 ppi pixel density
Processor: 1.85 Ghz 64-bit A9 SoC with M9 motion co-processor
Memory: 2GB RAM / 16GB, 64GB, and 128GB storage
Rear camera: 12MP rear iSight camera, F2.2 lens, True Tone flash
Front-facing camera: 5MP front-facing FaceTime camera, Retina flash
Battery: 1715 mAh non-removable Li-ion battery
Size: 138.3 x 67.1 x 7.1mm
Weight: 143 grams
Objectively speaking, the advantages of the iPhone are obvious. End-to-end control allows Apple to pursue a deep integration of hardware and software. This control has allowed intriguing new features, such as “3D Touch” where the screen measures different levels of pressure to activate “right-click” types of UI popups. This control allows Apple to get away with fairly middling specs, where Android phones are overcompensating with killer specs to cover a lack of optimization. This control is also what makes the iPhone camera usually so much better than the competition. I say “usually” because this year, the other guys, especially Samsung, have seriously stepped up their game.
But I do suspect that the Android implementation is only as good as its skin. In other words, the camera is great as long as you stay locked onto TouchWiz or Sense. We all know that manufacturer Android updates are agonizingly slow and in some cases, only supported for a year or two. Flash a custom ROM like Cyanogenmod, and you can kiss your tight hardware-software camera integration goodbye. I know this from bitter experience.
The disadvantages of such tight control is that it can be stifling. There is a liberating feel to Android. The possibilities are endless when it comes to true customization, both on the front end and back end. Most Android phone manufacturers also aren’t afraid to explore the bleeding edge of hardware development. After all, they just leave the bulk of software development to Google, so hardly need to expend resources on it at all. Instead we get things like NFC (Android first) and 4K screens (Android first). Apple waits a while before coming up with a carefully considered rebuttal. But they are never first.
So I haven’t actually said much about the new iPhones, mostly because I don’t have to. The reviews are in - they’re great. No surprises there.
I’m not sure if there will be any more flagships this year, so this most likely concludes my survey of the year’s best. The new Nexus phones are being announced next week, so I’ll definitely be checking those out. But, I’m not holding my breath for anything in the flagship class. I’ve got some thinking to do, because it’s finally time to make a choice.